Saturday, February 5, 2011

Back of House

I stared at the raw chicken in front of me, lying on its back with its legs splayed.
There's something obscene about this.
Knot, loop, loop. Knot, twist, flip. Loop, loop, knot.
A nicely trussed chicken if I do say so myself.
The phrase "chicken bondage" flit through my head and I smiled. I used my index finger to push underneath the skin on each breast and make a pocket, which I then filled with two garlic cloves. Positioned properly these looked somewhat inappropriate as well.
I never knew working in a kitchen would be so graphic.

"HANDS," someone shouts in front of the line. That means someone working the front of house has a plate to deliver.

The young but motherly hispanic woman training me today seasons the prepared chickens with a spice mix and then impales them on rods three at a time. She mounts them in the rotisserie machine. I can tell she's a tad impatient with my speed. In broken English she suggests I go get drinks for the employees working the line. When I finish doing so I walk up and look at her with an unsure smile. "What can I do now?"

She pulls down a recipe book and flips to a page. "Make this, half." I need the prepared cream sauce, peppers, and spinach. I venture into the walk-in fridge but I'm not sure where these things are. Everything is hand labeled in very sloppy writing. I take a tub of white cream and a tub of peppers and bring them to the prep area. The woman looks over, shakes her head, and takes the tubs from me without a word. She walks into the fridge, and comes back out with different white cream, different peppers, and a glob of spinach. She plops them in front of me and goes back to her business.

"Sorry, but you said to make half the recipe, right?" She looks over and nods. I have been double or triple checking on everything I do to be sure I don't screw up. Which I suppose is very annoying to the people around me, but I think it works out alright, as I've yet to screw up. I weigh out the ingredients, do some chopping, and mix everything together. It gets poured into a prep tub, labeled, and stored back in the walk-in.

I am entirely happy doing prep work, because even though it doesn't require much thought, it means I'm not working the dishtank. Really though, prep means I get to practice a variety of basic but important cooking skills. Do you know how hard it is to clean and cut butternut squash? Very hard. I weigh out nineteen pounds of black beans for the veggie burgers. Then I get to cut up the pickles and turkey with the electric slicer, which is a whole lot of fun.

I think to myself while I cube the turkey, anyone who claims to enjoy cooking is admitting that they like to play with knives and fire and dead things.

The third person working prep is a grumpy but cuddly hispanic man, and the sweet potato hash he is making smells delicious. I sneak tastes of the finished hash in the fridge every time I go in to fetch something. The woman leads me over to the baking section of the kitchen to show me how to prepare the parbake dough. She chops it up one 6oz chunk at a time and tosses the pieces around the wooden counter. I watch as she picks them up, flings them off her fingers in front of her, and kneads them into smooth little balls before plopping them in trays to rise. I follow suit, kneading them two at a time with curved fingers in a circular motion. Christ the culinary world is dirty.

It's time to clean up and I stand around awkwardly, not sure what to do with myself. The man tries to give me some direction but I can't understand him in the slightest. The woman pulls me aside and shows me how to separate the clarified butter. Do you know what clarified butter is? Me neither, but it smells delicious. I accidentally splash some butter onto the low shelves and curse myself silently. It could have been worse I guess.

We scrub down the walls, the counters, everything. We sanitize the knives and send every part of the kitchen possible to carry through the wash. "CORNER," I shout every time I carry a piece of equipment around to the dishtank. We splash soapy water on the floor until it resembles a small ocean, and squeegee it in waves toward the main drain. After we clean out the drain we're done for the night. Between my sore feet and slippery shoes, I am walking like an old lady, but I make it to the computer to clock out.

I never imagined working in a kitchen would be like this. I think I like it.

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